The Giver: Countercultural Movie of the Year

Something is countercultural if it questions widely held presuppositions, thereby offering a compelling challenge to the dominant paradigm.

The Giver, starring Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, and Meryl Streep, has gotten mixed reviews. Perhaps this is due to the cognitive dissonance the movie creates. This ideal leftist society robs people of their humanity. How can that be?

Based on a book by Lois Lowry, The Giver portrays a Marxist utopia where everyone is comfortable and safe. All distinctions have been erased: there is no race, gender, or religion. And no memory. They are a people without a past.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, this is achieved without violence (except for sanitized, hidden violence such as euthanasia and infanticide, done through painless injections as the worker speaks soothingly). Instead, people are drugged into submission. But there’s no crime, and they experience no pain.

Social norms are controlled by strict regulation. In personal interactions one must use “precise speech” – political correctness.

The past isn’t completely erased, however. The Keeper of Memories alone is allowed to remember the world before this utopia, ostensibly to provide sage advice to the elders – wisdom that can only come from remembering the past.

And that’s their undoing.

The Keeper knows this society is an authoritarian fraud, and he knows the elders secretly commit euthanasia and infanticide to maintain their ideal society.

When a boy is appointed as the next Keeper, the old Keeper becomes the Giver of Memories. And they conspire to reveal the truth.

When explaining why the truth should not be heard, the chief elder (Meryl Streep) remarks that when people are allow to choose, they always choose wrong.

Protection by limiting personal choice is the essence of authoritarianism.

The Giver is popular with conservatives, but unpopular with liberals, because it targets liberal authoritarianism. But both are missing the point. Conservatives are just as anti-choice as liberals, though in different ways.

At its core, The Giver is libertarian. And basically, all arguments against libertarianism come down to, “People will choose wrong, so we need this law or regulation to protect them”.

Books and movies use exaggeration to make their points, and The Giver is no exception. No government has (yet) tried mass druggings to control the population (though medicating so many of our kids comes close).

Medication, however, is a great metaphor for control through dogmatic ideology (religious as well as political), social engineering (a liberal favourite), and rigid hierarchy (a conservative favourite).

The big lesson in The Giver, as Jeff Bridges and Lois Lowry tell Stephen Colbert, is that perfection “doesn’t really work because we’re perfectly imperfect”.

Colbert objects that, “I’d like to be comfortable, and safe, and happy”. But Bridges comes back with, “And not loved”. He adds, “Love hurts…Suffering is a part of the whole deal, man. Y’know?” To which Lowry adds, “It’s part of being human”.

Bridges continues his thought: “When you try to get rid of that, it causes a lot of different problems. What you have to do is kinda bear witness to our suffering to try to get some empathy for each other”.

Lowry concludes that though the characters have total protection and safety, they’ve lost their humanity. And they’ve lost art, literature, and music. Art expresses our pain. Without pain there is no love, there is no art.

I’m not saying the desire to protect is wrong, but it can be taken too far. Protect those who cannot protect themselves, such as children. But allow people to make their own choices even if we know they will harm themselves, so long as they understand the risks and are willing to take responsibility for themselves.

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